DUBAI: In a kingdom once ruled by an ever-aging rotation of elderly monarchs, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman stands out as the youthful face of a youthful nation. But behind the carefully calibrated public-relations campaign pushing images of the smiling prince meeting with the world's top leaders and business executives lurks a darker side.
Last year, at age 31, Mohammed became the kingdom's crown prince, next in line to the throne now held by his octogenarian father, King Salman. While pushing for women to drive, he has overseen the arrest of women's rights activists. While calling for foreign investment, he has imprisoned businessmen, royals and others in a crackdown on corruption that soon resembled a shakedown of the kingdom's most powerful people.
As Saudi defense minister from the age of 29, he pursued a war in Yemen against Shiite rebels that began a month after he took the helm and wears on today.
What the crown prince chooses next likely will affect the world's largest oil producer for decades to come. And as the disappearance and feared death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul may show, the young prince will brook no dissent in reshaping the kingdom in his image.
"I don't want to waste my time," he told Time Magazine in a cover story this year. "I am young."
Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who wrote several columns for The Washington Post critical of Prince Mohammed, disappeared Oct. 2 on a visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Turkish officials have offered no evidence, but say they fear the writer was killed and dismembered by a Saudi team of 15 men — an operation that, if carried out, would have to have been authorized by the top of the Al Saud monarchy. The kingdom describes the allegation as "baseless," but has provided no proof that Khashoggi ever left the consulate.
For decades in Saudi Arabia, succession passed down among the dozens of sons of the kingdom's founder, King Abdul-Aziz. And, over time, the sons have grown older and older upon reaching the throne.
When King Salman took power in January of 2015 and quickly appointed Prince Mohammed as defense minister, it took the kingdom by surprise, especially given the importance of the position and the prince's age. He was little-known among the many grandchildren of Saudi Arabia's patriarch.
As defense minister, he entered office facing a crisis in Yemen, which lies south of the kingdom. Shiite rebels known as Houthis had overrun the country's capital, Sanaa. Claiming that the Houthis were backed by Iran, Saudi Arabia launched a coalition war against them.
The coalition has faced widespread criticism for its airstrikes hitting clinics and marketplaces, which have killed civilians.
For Prince Mohammed, the conflict remains part of what he sees as an existential struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for the future of the Middle East.
"We won't wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia," the prince told the Saudi-owned broadcasting company MBC last year. "Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia."
His aggressive posture against Iran has won the support of U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration, which pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal struck by President Barack Obama, whom the kingdom deeply distrusted.
Before becoming crown prince, Prince Mohammed visited the White House and forged a close relationship with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. Trump made Riyadh his first stop overseas as president, a visit complete with Arab pageantry and opulence.
Saudi Arabia soon embarked on the prince's ambitious proposal to allow women in the ultraconservative Wahhabi nation to drive. The resulting pictures of women in long black abayas behind the wheel represented a public-relations coup for the image-shaping firms employed by the kingdom, as did footage of women attending soccer matches and movie theaters for the first time in decades.
But then, the kingdom rounded up and imprisoned women's rights activists, including reportedly grabbing one woman who was in the neighboring United Arab Emirates.
Prince Mohammed has wowed the business world with promises of an initial public offering for the state oil behemoth Saudi Arabian Oil Co., known as Saudi Aramco, suggesting it would have a $2 trillion valuation.
The young prince has traveled across the U.S. as part of his business pitch, meeting leaders like former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos. Prince Mohammed also hosted a major business summit at Riyadh's Ritz Carlton, complete with a humanoid robot named Sophia being awarded Saudi citizenship.
Only weeks later, the hotel turned into a luxury prison as part of a mass arrest of businessmen, royals and others orchestrated by Prince Mohammed in a move described as targeting corruption. Those released agreed to sign over some of their assets, giving it the feel of a shakedown.
"If I have the power and the king has the power to take action against influential people, then you are already fundamentally strong," Prince Mohammed told CBS earlier this year.
The opaqueness of the Al Saud royal family makes it difficult to see what effect the Khashoggi affair is having at home. State television continues to air footage of Mohammed attending meetings and greeting officials as if all is normal.
Analysts say he has the full protection of the throne's powers.
Once asked if anything could stop him, the prince gave a two-word reply: "Only death."